I was always a huge fan of the Dungeons & Dragons-esque video games when I was younger. I have really strong memories of Baldur’s Gate 2 in particular, but the original BG, as well as the two Icewind Dale games, both stick in my mind. It was in trying to chase after those feelings that I would play games like Divinity: Original Sin, and even Baldur’s Gate 3 when it came out. But none of those games really worked for me because they were too…tabletoppy. But that’s not actually the subject of this essay.
Instead, my journey has taken me to Pillars of Eternity 2. I played the original PoE a few years back, and found it okay…but in all honesty could not tell you anything about it beyond really hating a particular aspect of the game (soul NPCs). My journey through the sequel is…fraught. But I’m not trying to do a review.
Instead instead, I found myself reflecting upon a particular way in which I was playing the game. That is, I was a thief.
When I say that, I don’t mean that I had chosen for my main character to be a rogue – the class of characters dedicated to thievery, lockpicking, and so on.
Rather, I mean that I would continually hold down the button to highlight lootable objects, and then take absolutely everything I could. And if something was lootable, but would count as stealing? Well, how could I get away with that? Turns out that as long as no one literally sees you steal, it doesn’t affect anything.
It’s that facet that caused me to step back and think about the game’s design and how I was engaging with the game itself.
In particular, I wanted to explore how the concept of thievery – especially its moral component – has been and could be integrated into video games.
Taking Everything That’s Not Nailed Down
In using PoE2 as my starting point, it’s important to note that it’s by no means the first or only game to invite this question. In a sense, it is a problem endemic to RPGs themselves.
By giving the player a city to explore, you naturally encourage them to run around. And if they can go into peoples’ houses, then obviously players will search around for something useful. The player naturally wants two things: experience and items. Experience could mean anything ranging from bonuses for passing skill checks to completing quests. Items could be anything from money to powerful weapons. Obviously, the bigger the reward, the better.
What is obviously missing from that brief list is “story.” While there are plenty of players that do care about the story and world of a game…there’s a sort of limit to that interest. And for many players that limit can be hit pretty quickly. So if you have a bunch of houses to explore, and they all offer nothing other than NPCs to talk to – who themselves won’t provide skill checks or quests – then after a certain point a player is going to stop going into houses. It is, to put it bluntly, a waste of time.
So you try to put in some stuff that players can find. Maybe you allow the player to walk into a house and search through everything and take whatever they like. The owner won’t bat an eye, and nobody will care. Or you might mark some containers as “private,” and tell the player that if they take stuff out of those containers, they are stealing. Which might mean any number of things: NPCs become hostile, you get arrested, you lose reputation, etc.
In many old RPG games, getting caught stealing would result in other characters just outright attacking you. It wouldn’t matter if they were hardened soldiers or a scullery maid, you needed to die for, say, stealing that spoon. It was obviously comical, but it ultimately provides a nice immediate feedback mechanism: stealing is bad, and you know because people attack you when you do it.
The Elder Scrolls games provide some examples of alternative punishments for stealing. In most cases, stealing is a crime, and can result in a guard tracking you down and issuing some kind of punishment – paying a fine or being arrested, usually. But we can also look to Oblivion for a more unique result. In Oblivion, stolen property was specifically marked as stolen in your inventory, and you could not sell it to normal merchants. Instead, you’d need to find specific merchants (i.e. fences) to buy stolen items off of you. There were various workarounds that players found to remove the flag, although to my knowledge these workarounds have been patched out of the game.
The commonality I want to point out about how games often handle stealing – when they decide to do anything – is to try to punish the player in some way. But usually it is a punishment for getting caught. And this design mentality introduces a major problem.
Property is Theft…Except When It’s Mine
Thinking about theft from an ethical perspective…obviously it’s bad. There are a variety of ways of thinking about when stealing might be morally justified (i.e. we can at least construct a sound argument that it might be justified to steal food to prevent yourself from starving), but the kind of stealing that we’re talking about in these games comes nowhere close to those circumstances.
But those moral equations never really line up in these games. Instead, you’re stealing for one of a few reasons. Firstly, you’re probably just checking containers to see if they contain anything useful – and then just taking everything anyway. Secondly, you might be trying to find some kind of resource that is useful for your playthrough. Often these are resources you could buy, but…this ties into the third reason. You’re looking for stuff that you can sell so you can make money to buy resources or save up for powerful items from shops.
Whatever the case may be, none of these reasons really line up with our normal justifications for theft. Instead, we’re just stealing because we don’t want to bother with making money or getting items in some other way. Or because we can’t get money or items any other way.
What this means is that these RPGs effectively encourage you to go into someone else’s house and take everything that you can. The simple way is just make sure you’re not seen. This might mean simply staying out of line-of-sight of other characters when you steal. Alternatively, you might work on developing your stealth skills so you can sneak and steal (or maybe even pickpocket).
I point this all out because it’s not only a facet of these games that we often take for granted, but which these games effectively encourage through their systems.
Firstly, you as the player often need money and resources for all sorts of things. But like I said, one important thing you may often be looking for in an RPG is powerful equipment. A legendary sword, upgraded armor, and so on. It’s not uncommon for these kinds of items to be available in shops fairly early on, but also obviously far outside of your price range. This setup gives players something to look forward to, but it also encourages the player to use everything at their disposal to get the funds needed. Meaning that if you go into a person’s house and see that you can just steal their books and potions, you are going to take them.
Secondly, the game often provides very limited ways for gaining the money you need. Or when it comes to better equipment, you will certainly find it on your adventure, but by introducing such expensive items on your adventure it keys you into the idea that you have to get a lot of money. So what can you do? You can do quests…but there are only a finite number of those in the game. You can kill enemies, but in some games enemies might be finite, or else they drop things that are of relatively little value.
Thirdly, just by keying players into these items, the player feels like they ought to go through and collect whatever they can. What if the next house has a good item? What if the next drawer contains some healing potions? Whatever the case may be, the sense that the player could be missing out on something fun or useful is going to draw players into rummaging through others’ belongings as often as possible.
Fourthly, there isn’t really any consequence for theft. I mean this more in the sense of stealing without being caught, but even when you are caught the consequences tend to be pretty light. But the fact that it can often be very easy to get away with theft in these games and you don’t need to worry about consequences impacts how we think about theft in these games. If stealing is only bad “when you get caught,” then the result is that players just figure out how to not get caught, rather than perhaps internalizing the idea that stealing might be bad.
I wanted to examine this last part in particular because there is a common point of discussion about moral choices in games: when presented with “good” versus “evil” options, players will overwhelmingly choose the good options. We like to play heroes more than villains.
But the player’s ability to steal everything not nailed down and the way that these games often encourage that behavior should get us to question our notions of how true that idea really is. Look up any walkthrough for an RPG, and if there are valuable items to be pilfered, you can be rest assured that the guides will point you to them.
And so in thinking about player morality, it’s worth thinking about what is presented as a moral action within a game. Because we recognize theft as wrong. In fact, if given a quest that might require us to steal from an NPC, we might well decide against it because stealing is wrong. Especially so if we are given dialogue options that suggest that it is wrong to steal. And yet when there is nothing there to essentially make us remember that we’re making a moral decision, it is easy for us to just ignore the ethical ramifications.
So what could be done about this?
Well, for one, designing a morality system that can take into account the private actions of a player, and not just the public actions that are witnessed. When a player commits some kind of wrong, how can the game communicate to them that it’s wrong within the game itself. That is, it’s something that they shouldn’t do even if they won’t be caught. Or at least if they will steal, it is something they should seriously consider. Is it what I really want to do?
The obvious solution would be a kind of morality marker – you lose morality points when you steal. But as I’ve written about before, this solution is not only inelegant, but boring. Rather, you want a player to organically consider the ramifications of their actions. This might include any number of solutions, such as using character dialogue to hint about the ethics of stealing – ask the player subtly “would you steal if you knew you could get away with it?” Or punish the player, but by impacting their ending or some other aspect of their play. Let the player be judged for their organic choices (whether you want a “bad” ending will depend on other factors, such as how long the game is or how the punishment is telegraphed).
But if games are going to allow players to steal, we should ask what that means within the context of the game. Because such theft is effectively a force of ludonarrative dissonance. While the core narrative of the game might suggest we are the hero of the world, and we might think of ourselves as “the good guy,” the actual actions we are taking in the game will often cut against that story. We are the hero who barges into peoples’ houses and takes everything we can. We are the hero who sneaks into a shop and steals whatever isn’t in plain sight. It is the kind of dissonance that we don’t think about, because these games so often never ask us to think about it.
I began this journey because I found myself running through the world of Pillars of Eternity II taking everything I could. It was at a very specific point fairly early in the game that made me wonder what I was doing. I arrived at a big city, and found myself in the poor district. And many of the NPCs there talked about living with just barely enough to get by. And while before I would take everything I could, I found myself not really wanting to steal from these people. Of course, they wouldn’t have much for me to take, and I was not saying I wouldn’t steal in general. So it was only a token effort at being good…for my character who was supposed to be a good and noble hero.
And yet, I also found myself effectively pressured to take whatever I could get my hands on. I needed all these materials and items and resources to use or sell. Because I was either going to be using all of those things, or there were all these expensive weapons and armors that I wanted to buy, so I needed every bit of currency I could get. So I constantly felt like I needed to be stealing from these NPCs.
And so it was that dissonance and the root cause of it that I wanted to explore. Why allow players to steal at all? Why did I keep finding myself rooting through boxes and cupboards in every building I entered? Why was this how I played not just this game, but practically every RPG?
And so it is by stepping back and examining how a game’s systems are set up – what it allows us to do and what it encourages us to do (both directly and indirectly) – that we can answer these kinds of questions.